Eckert on St. Elizabeth's: 'We're just not going to wave good-bye to them'

News-DemocratJune 25, 2014 

From restaurants to City Hall, the announcement Wednesday that St. Elizabeth's Hospital would be relocating to O'Fallon was met with disappointment in downtown Belleville.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said it's a letdown, but he also said the city is not giving up on working with the hospital.

"We're just not going to wave good-bye to them," Eckert said. "They've been here for 140 years."

The hospital's parent, Hospital Sisters Health System in Springfield, plans to build a new hospital in O'Fallon, but continue to provide some healthcare services in Belleville. Eventually, though, the Belleville hospital building itself will be vacated.

Eckert said he has known about the hospital's plans to build a new hospital for years. He said he initially approached administrators about building a new hospital in town in 2005, after he was elected to his first term.

"We were very open," Eckert said. "They have been through six administrators since I have been mayor, in nine years. I have been to Springfield on more than one occasion, and we continue to be willing to work with them. But I'm very disappointed that they made this announcement today, because they've gone from not going to keep anything here to going to keep something here. They've been all over the place. It's just disappointing."

O'Fallon Mayor Gary Graham said the new hospital will spur further economic growth, which will benefit the entire metro-east region.

"They didn't pick us (O'Fallon) over Belleville; they picked the location," Graham said. "This is considered a victory for the metro-east."

He also said that if Belleville were located near the interstate, he thinks St. Elizabeth's would've remained within the city limits.

But Eckert said, "They're looking to go where there are high payers, higher wealth. That's what they're running from. And my question to the sisters and the Order is, 'Is this what this is all about?' I always thought that, if you look at their mission statement, it was about serving the needs of people who needed medical care, no matter what their capabilities were."

"It's just a disappointment," he said. "I think we knew this day was coming. It's a sad day."

Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce executive director John Lengerman also said he was disappointed. He said the hospital has been a good Chamber member, and he understands what their needs are, but he still hopes the hospital can work something out with the city.

"I know the city has actively been trying to pursue ways to help modernize the downtown campus, and we also proposed another site to keep the hospital in town," Lengerman said. "It seems to me that they had their sights set on that area and bought the property prior to us knowing what was going on, to be quite frank."

He added, "From the Chamber's 550 members, their leaving is a tremendous economic impact on us. All of those folks with stores, restaurants, gas stations and things of that nature in downtown, that will be a major disappointment and a major economic shortfall for those folks, if the certificate of need is approved and they move."

On Wednesday, hospital president and chief executive officer Maryann Reese said building a new hospital would be more cost-effective than further renovating the downtown Belleville building.

Reese said HSHS is preparing an application for a certificate of need. Under Illinois law, nursing homes and hospitals must apply for and receive a certificate of need from the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board before they can build a new medical building. Reese said she expects to apply for the certificate later this summer and anticipates the board to review it by the fall.

Downtown Belleville business owner Geri Boyer, who owns Kaskaskia Engineering Group at 208 E. Main St. on the first floor and operates a bed-and-breakfast and the Writers' Lofts residences upstairs, said she's concerned about the hospital's move. Boyer said the hospital's new location, located 7 miles away and off Interstate 64, would not serve the poor as well and fulfill the mission of the Catholic-owned hospital.

"I'm not only concerned as a business owner, but also as a Catholic who truly believes that we are all here to serve each other," Boyer said. "This is a terrible reflection on the mission of a Catholic hospital."

Corea Buck, general manager at Fischer's Restaurant in Belleville, said, "We hate to see anything move out of Belleville."

Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois executive director Ellen Kroehne said the new hospital would only further enhance the local healthcare sector, which she said is one of the largest economic engines in Southwestern Illinois.

"Improvements in these facilities strengthens the region's ability to develop good, quality healthcare that is good for the region," Kroehne said. "The improvement will help strengthen the region's ability to develop good, quality healthcare."

O'Fallon-Shiloh Chamber of Commerce president Jessica Lotz said the Chamber is excited about the hospital's proposed move and the "tremendous opportunities" it provides.

"A modern hospital significantly increases the likelihood that our community obtains healthcare on this side of the river," Lotz said. "We don't under-estimate the impact that having a state-of-the-art, modern hospital will have on our ability to recruit and retain top medical talent. So it's a win."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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